Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Alabama Vegetarian

There's something I've been dying to write about, but really didn't know what to say.

So I'll just start and see how it goes although this subject is a bit tough for me. Not tough like talking about death or anything, but just an odd thing for me to come to grips with.

I am from Alabama. I adore it - love the hollows and hills, the many rivers filled with catfish and trout and crappie, the Native American town names, the culture of black and white folks, my sweet family and homegrown friends, the horizon and sound of cicadas. But one of the things I love the most about it - is the food.

It's true, Alabamians can fry anything. I went on a beach trip once where we actually fried a ham sandwich and my dear friend Dee ate it. We love butter and cheese and salt, and usually all three ingredients go into every dish we make. And rule #1 is - meat with every meal.

When Judge and I ate breakfast, it would usually be eggs and toast, and always some sort of ham product - bacon or sausage, or at least sausage gravy. Lunch would be a turkey sandwich, or a salad, with bacon, or chicken. Dinner was fried chicken, lasagna, cheeseburgers, etc. We may have had vegetables on the side, but it always revolved around meat.

One day Judge came home from his restaurant job and said, "I didn't eat meat today." Now, this didn't bowl me over, I mean, we had EATEN meals without meat, it just wasn't the usual practice. I blinked and said, "okay," and he still stood there. "I think I'm going to try to not eat it again tonight," he offered. Fine with me, I thought.

Well, that was almost two months ago, and we haven't eaten meat since (save for twice having a bit of tuna salad or shrimp) and it hasn't been a struggle. I haven't missed it. The girl who claims Dreamland Bar-be-que as her favorite meal in the entire universe has been a, gulp, vegetarian, for almost two months. It was never my plan to become the thing I used to make fun of, and even now when I use the word, "vegetarian," it gives me shivers down my spine. It's almost like my culture tells me that moniker isn't supposed to describe ME. But it does, and I'm slowly becoming to revel in it, and I know my body is.

I can't believe how good I feel, both physically and mentally, about this conscious and unconscious choice to avoid meat in my meals. My head is clearer (is that possible?), my stomach (which has long been my biggest enemy) hasn't hurt the first time, and I feel alive, more vibrant, and wake up each morning with a lightness that I have never felt. Perhaps it is because in this transistion, in supplementing vegetables and grains for meat products, I am getting ten times the nutrition that I had taken in before. I have discovered foods that I had never heard of (millet, seitan, quinoa) or never tried (kale, chard, lentils), and I am in love with them all.

But what about BBQ? What about that smell of meat on a grill and a medium rare steak oozing on a plate? These are my favorites, right? Well, the smell of meat on a grill still makes me take a deep breath, but I've found I don't miss the MEAT in the equation, but I miss the CONDIMENT. We made the most killer lasagna the other night (with cheese, but good cheese. I can't go all vegan yet) and it was just like Momma P makes (sorry Ma). It wasn't the meat I missed, but the hot, steaming tomato sauce and the texture of the vegetable protein and soy that feels like meat when you eat it. Make a good sauce and anything tastes good.

This is not to say that I'm slathering all my veggies in sauces or condiments. But when you want that rich, complex taste of a variety of flavors, we make something like fake chicken parmesan, or eat veggie burgers. Otherwise, we're making millet loaf - which is just like meat loaf, but light, airy, and soooooo good for you. Millet is one of the oldest grains in the world, and use to be what humans ate instead of wheat. It is THE most digestible grain, chock full of B vitamins and iron. I now make my own everything - hummus, tzahiki sauce, pesto, dressings, etc - and with the exception of breakfast (I still love a good bagel and cup of tea out for breakfast) we eat every meal at home, and spend less money. We're shopping at Turnip Truck, the local organic/natural food market, and buying less and eating better food.

I suppose why this topic is tough for me is the culture issue. Not eating meat makes me feel like a wimp, even though I'm a 21st century woman. I am from Alabama. We eat barbeque, hamburgers and hot dogs during football games, and it's a shame to turn down a pork chop from Momma P. They're delish. I haven't been home since I've made this change, and it may be tough when I return to explain how my eating habits have altered, but they're good peeps and I know they'll ultimately understand. You can look at me and see I'm healthier. I'm happier - which seems weird that food can do that - but it's true.

I decided to read up on nutrition because I wanted to make sure Judge and I were getting what we needed when eliminating a major part of our previous diet. Reading up on the subject changed my mind forever - I no longer worry that I'm not getting the vitamins I need - because if I have a diverse diet, if I eat a variety of sources of protein, iron, calcium, B vitamins (these are important!) then I'm fine - and I'm better off than eating meat. Meat doesn't process well in your system, it doesn't break down like veggies, and I know I'm not eating animals that have been slaughtered in an unjust manner and shot full of hormones or fed their own species. Eating too much protein can cause cancer and strokes, and eating all the vegetables I'm eating, especially raw, prevents against such diseases.

One of the books I read was The Vegan Sourcebook, by Joanne Stepaniak. She spent half the book telling the history of vegetarianism and veganism, and it really got me to thinking, even more than movies like Food Inc., or Michael Pollan's books about how to eat, because she lays out why it makes a difference to change your life and start treating animals with more respect. (I know! I sound ridiclious! I can't believe I'm saying this hippie nonsense! But it's true, and I've drank the Kool-aid, folks.) She says that people who decide to become vegetarians for their diet or health usually fail and return to their meat-eating ways. But, if you decide that you aren't eating meat because you love animals, and want to avoid being part of the problem of abuse, environmental detriment, and want to change the world through activism and respect, then you stick with it.

I wanted to write this here for anyone who was on the fence about ever becoming vegetarian. I didn't think I could do it. I thought of it like "going on a diet." It's not. It has changed my life, and really for the better. I actually feel like I'm a more peaceful person (I shake my head when I say this, unbelieving this is coming out of my mouth) and my body has responded to the change with a vengeance, and just you wait - it may be the reason I conquer the world! Laden with lentils, buckwheat, Swiss chard, and cucumbers, I can do anything! Okay, now I'm just being silly, but I do feel empowered, and I suggest trying it, even for a week or two to cleanse your system. You'll be amazed. Read up on some recipes (avoid tofu because most of it is genetically engineered, but that is another post altogether) and try it out. You just may surprise yourself. I did.

Additional reading:
The Vegetarian Resource Group
Vegetarian Nutrition
Lifecycle Nutrition
All Recipes - Vegetarian
Vegetarian Times
The Vegan Sourcebook, by Joanne Stepaniak
The Vegan Kitchen, by Freya Dinshah
Living the Good Life, by Helen and Scott Nearing
The Case for Animal Rights, by Tom Regan
Nutritional Yeast Cookbook, by Joanne Stepaniak


theblondemule said...

I've got a similar post in the works. I just finished reading Eating Animals & although I don't think I'm going to go full vegetarian, I'm definitely thinking about things I've never really thought about before.

Good for you!

Char said...

i think you approach was a good one and i'm so happy it works. i don't know if i could do it but there are many days that i just like a salad.

i like keeping the options open and not labeling so i don't get stressed out if if fail now and then....if i decided to go more veggies than meat.

Cabbage Babble said...

I'm not really labeling myself yet - although I do in this post - I'm leaving it open for whatever I decide in the future. It just feels good right now, and it makes me think differently about how I'm eating.

Thanks for the comments, guys. You're sweet to read my post.